Sign language reflects business

It turns out my last column talking about Chinese language signage in Richmond shopping malls came out on the same day as an article in the Vancouver Sun praising a Richmond womans campaign to limit non-English signs in the Golden Village.

Its not only immigrants who need to make accommodations, but also the Canadian mainstream, and this is a perfect illustration.

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I remember when Quebec enacted Bill 101 making French its only official language. There was a hue and cry when shops with English-only signage were harassed and fined by the dreaded language police.

Quebecs language policy triggered a massive exodus of corporate head offices and Anglophone talent and skills turning downtown Montreal into a wasteland of vacant lots and empty storefronts.

The á louer signs were proportionately larger than for rent, as required by law, but it didnt matter much because there were no takers in either language.

I dont think Richmond would face a drama on that scale if city council enacted a bylaw requiring English on all signs, but the same tensions are at play even though the English language is not under any threat in the Lower Mainland. Underlying it all is a dominant culture coming to grips with the idea that the world may not revolve around them after all.

The argument for English signs in Chinese malls is often made to sound like its for immigrants own good.

The article in the Sun made many of the nonsensical points that are trotted out when the mainstream feels its entitlements are under siege: that needing to read English signs in ones new homeland offers a strong incentive to learn English, or that allowing Chinese-only signs signals to newcomers that its not necessary to learn English.

But Chinese-only signage is not primarily an immigration issue or even a multiculturalism issue. Its a commercial issue. The store owners are making a statement about the clientele they hope to attract most of the stores Ive wandered into with Chinese-only signs sell products that have no appeal for me and that I often cant even identify.

Its not about exclusionary practices, its a business decision about appealing to a defined demographic. Those who take offense at that, hiding behind the idea that it is somehow un-Canadian, or diminishes the capacity of immigrants to integrate, are feeling the pain of being irrelevant in their own backyards, for the first time.

Integrating into a new culture is a complex, multi-generational process different for first generation, generation 1.5 (immigrants who come to Canada as children or young teens) and second generation immigrants.

Learning a new language is part of it, but its much more about the tension between old and new value systems and habits of thought. First-generation immigrants find comfort in the values of their home culture, but their children do not, as inter-generational conflicts attest.

Richmonds Intercultural Advisory Committee was asked to look at the signage issue a few years ago and again last year. This time around, instead of debating only what are essentially ideological arguments, we commissioned an informal survey among RCMP officers in Richmond to find out whether there were any public safety implications. It turns out not having English signage makes it more difficult for police to respond to a call. The same would presumably be true for fire and ambulance services.

Now that is an issue that bears further investigation and might justify a requirement for mandatory English signage. The red herring of tough love to help immigrants integrate does not. Quebec had to invoke the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to pass its language law, making it clear that imposing language requirements is not a defense of Canadian values quite the opposite.

Dr. Joe Greenholtz is a regulated Canadian immigration consultant (RCIC) and a director of the Premier Canadian Immigration Co-op. He also sits on the Richmond Intercultural Advisory Committee.

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